Wednesday 13 September 2017

The Grand Redemption of the Davison era

On reflection, there isn't a lot of the Davison era I'd actually recommend. Its a hard thing to admit because Davison himself is one of my favourite Doctors and he can wrestle anything into watchability, at least. There are so many great moments but as to whole stories I would recommend without having to attach a few caveats when I hand over the DVD?

Caves of Androzani, maybe? Even then I'd absolutely say “Please never watch the story that pays off the final episode cliffhanger” because domestic abuse apologism. Everything else just has too much riding against it, even the usually safe stone cold classics of that era. Enlightenment and Snakedance are hands down some of the best stories the classic series ever managed but one caps off an otherwise crap trilogy and the other is less of a sequel to Kinda and more of a second chance to pay off all the lofty intentions that never quite landed the first time.

The other day someone on a Big Finish Facebook group asked whether The Waters of Amsterdam was worth a listen. I was one of a bunch of commenters chipping in to say yes and in the process I called it one of Big Finish's “Do it again but better” stories.

And then I realised that has been one of Big Finish's chief strategies with Davison.

Its no secret that Big Finish has done some rehab on every Doctor they've worked with. They broke down the Sixth Doctor and reassembled him into something sympathetic; they took the Seventh Doctor further down the manipulative road than the TV show ever could; they had to build the Eighth Doctor practically from the ground up; and, whilst Tom Baker's better working relationship with those around him is his own doing, providing a late-Fourth Doctor era where star and co-stars aren't actively at war with each other is a pretty significant shift.

With Davison, again and again, Big Finish have returned to ideas and even specific stories, tapped their conductor's baton on the edge of the lectern and said “Once more, with feeling.

The Waters of Amsterdam as an example. The story takes place directly after Arc of Infinity, a story partly set and filmed in Amsterdam that did relatively little with the setting aside from a fairly generic “tourist gets kidnapped and concerned cousin (Tegan) investigates” plot. Otherwise it was a pretty bland story about a poorly explained Omega doing something with an almost unexplained space phenomena to return to our universe and somehow the Time Lords are getting shirty about it because reasons.

The Waters of Amsterdam, by contrast, is a story set in both “present day” (read: 1983) Amsterdam and the Dutch Golden Age where the Doctor wants to talk to Rembrandt about some painting that have actual spaceships in them. It also features a character from the present who is Tegan's ex-boyfriend, establishing a relationship and a life for the character between her being left behind at the end of Time-Flight and her re-introduction in Arc. Jonathan Morris writes a story that actually uses the characters to craft a story, which you'd think an era obsessed with soap opera would have done more often.

And Waters isn't alone in this. Spare Parts gives Davison another Cybermen story with all the emotional gut punches Earthshock tried to deliver but failed because Eric Saward could only kill off the least popular character on the show; Psychodrome is a whole story set just after Davison's debut that hinges on the fact that no one on the TARDIS knows anyone else all that well; The Five Companions is presented as a missing scene from The Five Doctors that is all about using a reunion of First Doctor companions to comment on the 1960s era and even to dispell a few myths about how those characters were (there's a fantastic scene in which Davison assures Polly she was never, ever just there to make the coffee); Kiss of Death is a story that explores Turlough's past on the losing side of a war which literally never came up outside his debut and his final story; and, The Gathering actually follows up on Tegan's emotional and abrupt exit from the series.

That's not even a complete list, just a few examples I picked out scrolling through the Big Finish website. There's more to their Fifth Doctor offerings than just reheating old plots and doing them better, of course, but I do take it as “part of the service” that they've polished off the hidden (and sometimes willfully squandered) potential of that era to show what could have been done with just a little more thought.

Oh, and The Church and the Crown is probably the best comedy historical the series has ever done. 

No comments: